Public art around us: Looking past the frozen smiles of Yue Minjun’s A-maze-ing Laughter
By Aderyn Davies
With spring here and weather warming up, it’s a great time to get out there and start engaging with the city’s public art. One of Vancouver’s most recognized, indeed iconic pieces, A-maze-ing Laughter by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, is known for its surface-level goofiness and approachable spirit.
Located at Morton Park across from English Bay Beach, the work consists of 14 painted cast-bronze sculptures that are semi-self-portraits of the artist. With bare feet, jeans, muscular stomachs, eyes closed and laughing faces, all the figures are physically identical save for their arms, placed in seven different expressive ways.
Brought to Vancouver initially as part of the 2009–2011 Vancouver Biennale exhibition (a nonprofit public art festival running every two years), Yue’s piece was subsequently purchased by the Wilson family (founders of Lululemon) for $1.5 million in 2012 to become a permanent piece in Vancouver’s public art collection. Offering many opportunities for fun and whimsical photos, A-maze-ing Laughter has given tourists and locals alike the chance for pictures and laughs.
Yet A-maze-ing Laughter also lends itself to a deeper narrative about freedom of self-expression and individuality. Upon realizing that all the joyous faces are replicated, the viewer is challenged by their insincerity. Yue Minjun was born in 1962, just before the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. He grew up at a time when a large portion of the Chinese population was persecuted, abused and displaced. Traditional arts, culture and religion were actively, often brutally suppressed, and citizens were encouraged to denounce existing cultural institutions. This was a time when individual identity was lost and people were expected to become opaque and emotionless soldiers or supporters of Mao’s Red Army.
Smiles are ubiquitous in Yue Minjun’s work. Photo: Jacob Bøtter by Creative Commons license
Having grown up in such a restrictive era, Yue explores ideas of philosophical inquiry and existence in his art, which has gained worldwide attention and acclaim. Ubiquitous throughout his work, including his paintings and installations, is his own self-portrait as an image of frozen joy. This image has been connected to the Laughing Buddha, which, interestingly, was banned during Yue’s childhood. With their eyes closed and mouths wide open, Yue’s self-portraits can be understood as ironic symbols of the violence and vulnerability experienced by humanity and the current state of spirituality and consumerism in Chinese culture.
Terracotta Warriors (Contemporary) by Yue Minjun. Photo: Paul Stevenson by Creative Commons license
As a piece of public art, A-maze-ing Laughter is multifaceted and dynamic. It can be enjoyed at “face” value for its playfulness, as suggested by the Wilson family in the dedication: “May this sculpture inspire laughter, playfulness and joy in all who experience it.” It also lends itself to a deeper reading that challenges viewers to reflect on their own experiences of identity and expression.
Top photo: A. Davies